This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: U2, “Discotheque.”
THE YEAR: 1997.
THE REASONS: Bono isn’t a very good irony filter.
Like most people who write about how much they like pop music, I once really hated pop music. I came to pop late: born in 1979, the first new non-Weird Al album I can remember being into was 1990’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. A year or so later, the Nirvana explosion hit me hard, and I had thoroughly internalized my alt/indie idols’ decrying of inauthentic pop. Of course, I was still listening to Use Your Illusion every day; lacking male music nerd friends, I didn’t really have the proper context to understand what I was supposed to dislike. (My female music nerd friends just made me rad Britpop mixtapes after I would pretend to know who Blur were.) And so, given the standards as I understood them, what did I finally get around to hating? An album that was literally called Pop. Released by U2 in 1997, it served as the conceptual center of a tour and ironic turn for the band. I took the bait, centering my disdain on the lead single, “Discotheque.”
1997 was the year of the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land and the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, when the US record industry mistook Big Beat for something called “electronica” and learned the commercially painful lesson that the record-buying public here still didn’t care about dance music. “Discotheque” apes the sound, already fairly close to rock, in an almost transparently opportunistic way, emphasizing halfhearted breakbeats, trebly bass, and distorted filters to produce a kind of sustained dance-ish mush. If U2 weren’t such an international band, you could accuse them of taking a dive, producing a track so limpid that it confirmed all the lazy stereotypes Americans had about European dance music. Hearing that track, which sounds more appropriate for a car commercial than a club, allowed people to dismiss far more vital dance tracks and artists.
I took to hating the track with gusto. The most notable incarnation of this hatred was a song I wrote—I should have been writing criticism—about how pop is shallow and phony, or something. As these things do, the idea stayed with me but metastasized alongside my tastes, and though I haven’t thought about “Discotheque” in particular for many years, the critiques I developed of Pop and U2 have found their way into much of my writing.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
I have never liked U2, and I still don’t. My hatred for the band is so strong and so unreasonable that I don’t even try to defend it. I know I’m wrong, but I can’t help it. I hate U2. If there were ever a U2 album I would like, though, it would’ve been Pop. The Popmart tour was this complex, irony-laden mix of commercialism and art, like the Josie and the Pussycats movie in real-time (or, less charitably, the Murakami exhibition with a Louis Vuitton shop inside it). The album, too, which found Bono dropping most of his most precious vocal tics, should’ve been right up my alley at a certain point; with its vintage synths, effect-heavy guitars, and fitfully Krautrocky drums, it was like a proto-Kid A. I mean, the album was supposed to be anti-pop, ultimately, making my protest song akin to complaining that Andy Kaufman wasn’t a very good wrestler.
The problem is that it was still a U2 product. The thing I (and many others) really can’t stand about the band is how seriously they—or, to be fair, Bono—take themselves, and so even when they set out to do irony, they did it in this sincere, pointed way. The thing we called “irony” in the late ’90s was fun because it was funny, and while U2 is admittedly good at many things, it is not good at being funny. I mean, the whole theory behind the Popmart tour was “U2 being insincere,” and it worked about as well as Aaron Sorkin being Beckettian.
The pivot point for all this, when my misguided critique of Pop-the-album became an slow embrace of pop-the-music, was an essay Thomas Frank wrote for Harper’s in 1998 called “Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony.” In it, he told the story of the Chicago indie act Yum-Yum, one of the many bands at the time doing a self-aware take on ’60s/’70s schlock sounds like lounge and bubblegum. Frank’s take was about as valuable as you would expect from a non-music critic who was close friends with the band’s lead singer, but his justification was illustrative. He claimed that Yum-Yum’s irony was so sincere that it was, in fact, a devastating critique of the commercialism it was imitating, since by taking the irony so far it forced people to consider the vacuity of the commercial products they consumed unthinkingly.
It was very hard, in tracing the multiple negatives and loop-de-loops of this argument, not to notice the solution: If an ironic band was indistinguishable from the thing it was being ironic about, then shouldn’t it be judged by the same standards as we judge pop? Shouldn’t we ask for things like pleasure, immediacy, novelty, and vitality? By these standards, of course, Yum-Yum fell hopelessly short (schlock is only shlock after the fact, since it fulfills the needs of the cultural moment it inhabits—if Glee isn’t considered schlock in ten years, I’ll eat my hat), and it started gently nudging me toward the realization that if I primarily enjoyed ironic versions of pop, I might enjoy sincere versions of pop even more. The many ways in which irony failed to do one better on pop started to show how hard it really was to write a sell-out song. “Discotheque” was U2’s attempt to do electronica, and it turned out they couldn’t do it very well, but that hardly meant dance music couldn’t be done well; it just had to be done with some greater love for the attempt. And so that hatred I felt for the song ultimately turned to a kind of love, too. It just wasn’t for the song itself; it was for what the song was trying to be.